Perfect mix of showbiz, politics

July 07, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

LOUIS L. GOLDSTEIN'S great secret was knowing that politics is a branch office of theater. William Donald Schaefer knows this, and so do Kweisi Mfume and Barbara Mikulski and, in his day, so did Hyman Pressman.

Pressman, the late city comptroller, was a poem composed on an adding machine. Goldstein, the late state comptroller who died Friday night of a heart attack at 85, was a shrewdie posing as a corny hayseed while simultaneously looking to outsmart every city boy in the room.

"Don't believe all that country boy stuff," all the wise heads in Annapolis always said. "Louie's the smartest guy in state government."

The wise heads figured it marked them as insiders to have figured this out, though it was known by anyone who ever spent 10 minutes with Goldstein in private conversation, when he wasn't God-blessing everybody or aw-shucksing the hell out of the English language.

It's not that Goldstein was fooling anybody. He really did believe in all the eternal verities: love of family and God and "this great country," and deep devotion to this little state whose untapped land he had a marvelous propensity for buying cheap and later selling expensive.

Goldstein was beloved by voters because, having figured out the show-business side of politics, he realized what a great fit it was for him. Remember, this was a man who once walked into a department store and shook every hand he could find -- including the manikin's.

Some of us used to see him in election seasons outside Memorial Stadium before Baltimore Colts games. At such moments, the last thing on anyone's mind was a little chat with the state tax man. This was where Colts fans went for spiritual deliverance, cardiac flirtations, outdoor group therapy -- anything but politics.

Goldstein knew it, and knew he could win his elections without this pressing of the flesh. But he went anyway, because there were 60,000 people who would show up, most of 'em voters, and he couldn't resist. And, seeing his familiar mug there, and anticipating the inevitable "God bless you all real good," it made everybody feel benevolently marked: This was Louis, this was state tradition. You had just been inducted into the brotherhood.

He was Maryland politics' happy warrior, a Hubert Humphrey figure expressing the politics of joy. When John F. Kennedy ran against Humphrey for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, Goldstein joked, "There are some things Humphrey is willing to do for votes, and I am not -- and one of them is bobbing for apples."

It was an exaggeration, naturally, but voters got some of that sense from Goldstein. Politics is fun. It's democracy in action. It's America, it's a party: Aren't we blessed?

That's the beauty of a William Donald Schaefer entering the aquarium seal pool in a form-fitting, turn-of-the-century swimsuit: He was the mayor, the father figure, but he could poke fun at himself just like any member of the extended family.

It's the beauty of a Kweisi Mfume, knowing the intractable VTC problems of race and poverty, knowing that so many have grown tired of the arguing, but digging into his heart, digging into his own life, and making the language sing loud enough to transport us to all sorts of redemptive possibilities.

Or it's the beauty of a Barbara Mikulski, who knows how to sound like a street kid dressed up like a grown-up whenever she lets herself forget she's an Important Person. Remember Mikulski years ago, standing in front of a crowd after she helped defeat all the geniuses who wanted to run an eight-lane highway through Fells Point?

"The British couldn't take Fells Point," she cried happily, "and the termites couldn't take Fells Point, and the State Roads Commission couldn't take Fells Point."

What's the phrase? The common touch? Or is it just the ability to let the human being show behind the political image?

Louis L. Goldstein was simple enough to let us see something that looked like a heart beating. He wasn't the captive of any organizational spin doctors, any television ad men. We saw him as his corny, idiosyncratic self, so earnest about it that he banished the cynic in each of us.

With his death, who's left on the political landscape with such a touch? Parris Glendening, who gets caught deviating from the facts whenever he speaks? Eileen Rehrmann, who brings all the verbal flair of a branch librarian lecturing on the Dewey Decimal System? Ellen Sauerbrey, trying to win this year's election but still gracelessly unwilling to admit she lost the last one?

Louis L. Goldstein was that rarest of combinations: the tax man who brought us a little joy. He blessed us all pretty good.

Pub Date: 7/07/98

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